World Oceans Day 2022

Shark Trade from the Western Indian Ocean

By Dave van Beuningen & Rhett Bennett | June 8, 2022

White-spotted wedgefish. Photo credit: © Guy Stevens/Manta Trust

The global trade in shark and ray products remains strong, and although much is legal and conducted through legitimate channels, this trade is also characterized by underreporting, hidden and illegal shipments, and a sinister underworld.

Globally this trade (which includes meat, fins and other byproducts) is valued at approximately USD 1 billion annually, and primarily centers around the lucrative trade in fins from sharks and shark-like rays (sawfishes, guitarfishes, and wedgefishes), which are used in shark fin soup. That trade comprises at least 76 shark and ray species and remains largely unregulated across the more than 80 countries and territories known to export fins, primarily to Hong Kong and other East Asian countries.

The global trade in sharks and ray products is valued at approximately USD 1 billion annually, and primarily centers around the lucrative trade in fins.

In the Western Indian Ocean (WIO) — encompassing Africa’s east coast and the associated island nations — trade in shark and ray products has occurred for centuries. The export of shark fins from Madagascar to China, Reunion Island, and Zanzibar (and of shark meat, skin and liver oil to the Comoros) was documented as far back as the early 1920’s.Seychelles expanded its commercial fishing operations in the 1950s to meet the demand for shark and ray products on mainland Africa and Asia.

Sicklefin devil ray cut in half with gill plates exposed. Photo credit: © WCS Tanzania

Manta and devil rays have traditionally been traded for their meat, cartilage, and skins but in the last decade a market has developed for their gill plates, which are used as a medicinal product in Asian communities. The market value of the global gill plate trade has been estimated at USD 11 million annually. Although the largest documented manta and devil ray fisheries occur in Indonesia, Sri Lanka and India, these species are also targeted in Kenya, Madagascar, Mozambique, Tanzania and potentially other WIO States.

Shark liver extracts — mostly oils — have been put to a variety of uses. Certain extracts of shark liver oil, namely squalene and squalane, are used in cosmetics as a high-grade machine oil, as a health food supplement, and as a component in certain vaccines. Liver oil has also been widely used as a waterproofing agent for traditional vessels. And demand for shark liver oil increased during World War II as a valuable source of Vitamin A, at a time when alternative sources of Vitamin A were less readily available.

Manta and devil rays have traditionally been traded for their meat, cartilage, and skins but in the last decade a market has developed for their gill plates.

A high demand for shark meat in Kenya resulted in imports from Somalia, Zanzibar, and Yemen. Kenya’s Port of Mombasa is also a known hub for shark and ray exports. Despite a regulated international shark fin and meat trade, shark fins sourced from purse seine and long line vessels from Mozambique, Zanzibar and Pemba Island and, to a lesser extent, from artisanal fishers in Somalia are exported to Asia from Mombasa Port, unreported and uninspected.

Thresher sharks in Kenya with fins cut off. Photo credit: © WCS Kenya

At the same time, sharks are commonly landed without fins in Kenya’s artisanal fishery, suggesting they have been removed at sea — illegal under Kenyan law — and likely indicative of illegal trade in this product.

Additionally, there are often major discrepancies between export volumes of shark and ray products as reported by the exporting country versus volumes reported by the importing country, despite international mandates to report accurately. This makes it impossible to ascertain the magnitude of trade in certain species, which impedes their sustainable management.

International trade regulations laid down by CITES are only as effective as their implementation and enforcement at the country level.

Several multilateral agreements are in place to help make trade in shark and ray products more sustainable. For example, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) aims to “ensure that international trade in specimens of wild animals and plants does not threaten the survival of the species”. However, international trade regulations laid down by CITES are only as effective as their implementation and enforcement at the country level, and in many cases capacity for that action is limited.

Shark and ray fins confiscated from illegal shipment in Mozambique. Photo credit: © WCS Mozambique and Instituto Oceanográfico de Moçambique.

For example, two shark fin shipments confiscated by the Mozambique Customs Authority in 2018 and 2019 included 13 different shark and ray species, with 84 percent of the fins randomly tested coming from CITES-listed species, without the relevant paperwork, making these international trades illegal. This is a great example of how governments in the WIO are taking note, building their capacity and aiming to reduce the illegal trade of shark and ray products from this region.

This World Oceans Day we’d like to celebrate an increased willingness of governments in the WIO to control the trade in CITES-listed shark and ray species.

Through funding from the Shark Conservation Fund, the WCS Mozambique Marine Program and WCS Western Indian Ocean Shark and Ray Program hosted a series of training workshops with relevant government agencies that regulate the shark and ray trade in Mozambique.

Through these workshops, stakeholders were given an overview of the implications regarding shark and ray species listed on CITES and other international agreements; Mozambican national legislation in the context of CITES; and training on the identification of CITES-listed shark and ray species. Similar training, facilitated through WCS, is planned for the relevant authorities and stakeholders in other WIO countries later this year.

CITES shark and ray training in Mozambique. Photo credit: © WCS Mozambique

Furthermore, the 19th CITES Conference of the Parties will be held in Panama in November this year, where the listing of additional shark and ray species on the various CITES appendices will be proposed. If successful, this will pave the way for additional trade controls for other threatened shark and ray species.

This World Oceans Day we would like to celebrate the increased interest and willingness of governments in the WIO to further develop capacity for controlling the trade in CITES-listed shark and ray species, which will help to ensure that populations of these threatened species in the WIO have a chance to recover.

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Dave van Beuningen is Shark and Ray Associate Conservation Biologist for the East Africa, Madagascar & Western Indian Ocean Shark and Ray Program at WCS (Wildlife Conservation Society). Rhett Bennett is Program manager for the WCS East Africa, Madagascar & Western Indian Ocean Shark and Ray Program.

[Aspects of this work were funded in part by the Shark Conservation Fund, a philanthropic collaborative pooling expertise and resources to meet the threats facing the world’s sharks and rays. The Shark Conservation Fund is a project of Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors.]

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Wildlife Conservation Society

Wildlife Conservation Society

WCS saves wildlife and wild places worldwide through science, conservation action, education, and inspiring people to value nature.